Tough Questions About Predestination, Free Will, Evil and Hell

A recent convert to Catholicism, in response to last Friday’s post on the problems of free will, evil, and Hell, asks some really hard questions.  There are actually a lot of good comments on that post, so if it’s a subject that interests you, you should check it out.  Let me start out with two hypotheticals, before moving on to readers’ questions.

I. The Mystery of Free Will: Does God Will Us to Sin?

Here’s what the reader, Toenail of the Body, asked:

Question 1: If we claim God is omniscient and omnipotent, then He didn’t just create the damned and “knew” they would fall- He created them to fall. This is a distinction that I have really wrestled with and I’m hoping you can maybe spread some light on it. I realize that the Church says there is free will and I believe that; you might call my faith blind faith though. So, if you have any thoughts I’d appreciate them.

The first sentence (the one in red) is untrue.  The Church explicitly denies it in CCC 1037: “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.

This is the mistake Calvinists often make.  But if it were true, it would mean that God is the Author of confusion and the Creator of evil.  But 1 Corinthians 14:33 that “God is not the author of confusion.”  And He can’t be the Creator of evil, because it’s contrary to His nature. 1 John 1:5 says that “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.”  If He has no potentiality for evil, it’s impossible for Him to create it.

Even though God creates man, and even though He creates each individual knowing how they’ll use their free will, free will is still a Divine spark.  He doesn’t simply design us as robots, but creates as thinking beings capable of doing good or evil.  This is what I meant in the earlier post, when I said that Genesis 1:26, in which God decides to make us in His Image “isn’t a physical description, but a spiritual one.”

Let’s take the four major categories:

  • With the forces of nature, we can speak of mere causality – you lower water to below freezing, and it begins to turn into ice.  It has no say in the matter, no self-awareness, and simply isn’t alive.  It’s inorganic matter.  So it is a force acted upon by external influences, and has no will at all.
  • Plants are living, but appear to be exclusively a product of their environment.  They cannot be trained, and they have no will.
  • Animals appear to have some degree of a will, but are still governed by instinct.  They’re essentially a product of their biology and environment.
  • Finally, God, however, isn’t a mere force of nature, and external forces cannot act on Him in a way that causes Him to change.  In fact, God never changes.  As James 1:17 tells us, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, Who does not change like shifting shadows.”  He simply has no room for improvement, so there’s never a need to change.  So God has pure Will, without being controlled in even the slightest by things like “nature” or “nurture.”

As humans, we are both fleshly and spiritual being.  As such, we can behave like animals, acting on mere impulses or hormones, or allowing their lives to be defined by their biology or environment.  But unique amongst Creation, we possess the desire and (to an extent) the capability for self-improvement.  That is, we can look at our lives, decide that we don’t like the decisions we’ve been making, or the way we’ve been living, and begin to live a different way.  In doing so, we’re acting upon a spiritual impulse, whether we realize it or not. We’re recognizing that our will exists, and using it to overcome our nature and our nurture.
That, I should point out, can be good or bad.  For example, the Nazis (influenced by thinkers like Nietzsche) idolized man’s will, and used it to act in a way so disturbingly demonic that it goes beyond the worst of what we see in the animal kingdom.  You’ll see some pretty barbaric violence amongst animals. But what you don’t see are animals putting one another in concentration camps.  That’s an evil that requires human intelligence and will.
So we can say that (a) the will exists, and (b) we are capable of willing good or evil.  This means that when God creates us with a free will, He’s not simply programming us to act good or evil.  If that were the case, the will would be no different than nature or nurture, and we’d be no different than animals (or even plants).  Rather, He’s creating us with a will, similar to His own Will.  We can either use it in conformity with His, or in rebellion from His. 
Now, when God creates us, He already knows how we’re going to use that free will, certainly.  But that’s different than willing it.  When you have a baby, you know that baby will need to have her diaper changed, and will puke on your nice things, wake you up, and do all sorts of impolite things at inappropriate times.  But no sane person has a baby in order to get someone to puke on their nice things, and wake them up at odd hours of the night.  That may be a reason to join a fraternity, but not to have a child.  Rather, you ideally want to have a child out of love, and are willing to put up with those “unpleasantries.”
Likewise, God creates even the damned out of love. Because He’s in the eternal present, He foresees that things will end up badly for them, but He still loves them, and wishes that they’d turn away from their evil. 
II. A Keen Insight into the Transition from Puritanism to Unitarianism
The reader’s next question is incredible insightful:

Question 2: The above viewpoint propagates some additional questions about the “fairness” of Hell. If some were created just to be thrown into hell, then is that not a little “unfair” of God? 

Yes. It’s fortunate that this viewpoint is wrong (as discussed in the answer to Question 1).  Because if some people are predestined to Hell, and can never do anything to avoid it, then yes, that would seem to be quite unjust of God.  To eternally punish someone for the authentically unavoidable violates even a basic sense of justice (and God’s Justice is higher, not lower, than our own).  It also violates everything we hear from Scripture.  That’s simply not a description of the God of the Bible.
The Calvinist answer is that we sin, and therefore merit Hell.  Fair, but only if sin is our fault.  If we have no control over our actions, we shouldn’t be punished for them.  Take the famous 19th century case in which a woman named Esther Griggs dreamed that her house was on fire, picked up her baby, while yelling, “Save my baby!” and threw the baby out the window to the street below, killing the baby.
This post mentions John Calvin and Tiger Sharks.
I can’t avoid a Calvin and Hobbes reference.

If Ms. Griggs were awake, and aware that no fire existed, her actions would constitute murder.  But since she was asleep, and did not will to murder her child (she was trying to save the child from an imagined fire), and could not will to murder her child (since she was asleep), she was innocent of any crime.  So even secular law distinguishes between willful acts and omissions, and things which happened which we don’t will.

Similarly, if a woman dies in labor, we don’t accuse her child of murder.  He wanted nothing more than to be born, and could do nothing other than what he did.  Accusing him of a crime he has no control over would be barbaric.  To sentence a man to even a short stint in prison for the crime of being born would be absurd.  All the more so to sentence a man to an eternity in Hell.
I mentioned in my last post that God doesn’t send tiger sharks to Hell.  It wouldn’t make any sense: they’re acting on blind instinct, and have no knowledge of good and evil.  The Catholic answer to Calvinism is to look to Scripture: Genesis 2:16-17 and Gen. 3:6-7 make it clear that knowledge of good and evil is a prerequisite for damnation.  And knowledge of good and evil is only a sensible prerequisite for damnation if that knowledge somehow gives you the power to choose or avoid sin.  Otherwise, countless Scriptural passages are drained of any sense.
The reader concludes:

I believe some retort to this unfairness by asking who we are to question God. While that is a very nice platitude, I believe it avoids the question. Others have challenged this by redefining hell to mean a complete abolition of mankind. Not only is the body not resurrected, but the soul is utterly destroyed. Thus, there is not a punishment that has an infinite duration, but rather a punishment that cannot be undone. Thoughts?  

This is exactly the reason that I believe that the Puritans became Unitarians.  They started out as Calvinists, realized that their doctrine of double predestination appeared to make God quite evil, and sought to soften it by imagining that since God controls everyone’s eternal fate (and free will is illusory), then He’d just steer everyone to Heaven.  I find it fascinating that this reader started with the same false premise (that God wills some to go to Hell) and ended up rationalizing it in the same way (maybe an eternal Hell doesn’t exist).  It certainly reinforces the Puritan to Unitarian argument, I’d say.


  1. Joe,
    Thanks for this post and all the others haha. I just have a question: Are the ones whom God foresees their damnation able to get saved? In other words, is it possible to the ones God knows will be damned not to be damned?
    I think it’s a silly question, but this issue is not very clear in my mind yet.
    Keep up the good work.

    In Christ,

  2. Christopher, thanks!

    And Felipe, the short answer is no, but it needs a bit of explaining. Let’s use TiVo as an example. You can go back and watch last night’s Iowa debates over and over again (if for some strange reason, that’s the sort of thing you would enjoy doing). You might get to the point where you can recite every answer verbatim. You’ll know the outcome to an absolute certitude – there’s literally no way that they’ll answer something different.

    But the candidates, at the time that they’re asked, still have free will. That is, you as the TiVo watcher don’t wipe out the candidates free will to answer the questions, when asked. You just know how they’re going to answer, since you’ve watched it 79 times before.

    This is obviously an imperfect analogy, for two reasons. One, God’s involvement is more than a mere Watcher. Two, in the TiVo example, we’re dealing with past, present, and future in a much simpler way. When we start talking about God, we have to remember that He’s in the eternal present. There’s one remark that Jesus makes in particular that I find numinous: “Before Abraham was born, I AM” (John 8:58).

    He doesn’t say, “I WAS around before Abraham,” but “I AM.” He is simultaneously existing, in the present, from the dawn of time until the end of time, as well as in an eternity in which “time” is a meaningless phrase. It’s the sort of thing spoken by Someone who “gets” eternity, which is to say, no mere Man.

    So it’s not quite as simple as TiVo, but the general idea remains: it’s possible both for us to have free will and for God to be fully aware of how something has played out / is playing out / will play out (since those three things are all simultaneously true for Him). Does that make any sense?

    In Christ,


  3. This makes a lot of sense. As I read your response I realize that if the question I asked you had an affirmative answer the very eternity of God would collapse, because there would be a situation in which God would not be able to foresee its result (the person’s not being damned at all). The debates’ analogy makes it clear in a way that, if my question had an affirmative answer, God would be the watcher who waits for the candidates’ answers as new ones.

    In Christ,


  4. “Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices…until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between heaven and Earth…between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.

  5. Hi there. I am just wondering when you say Calvinist make the mistake of believing or teaching that God is the author of sin, confusion, and evil what Calvinists are you speaking of? You offered no citations for this whatsoever.

    (Also, sorry the deleted comment was from me also. I didn’t realize I was signed into my husband’s Google account when I left it.)

  6. Hollie,

    No problem on the duplicate — that happens all the time around here.

    And I didn’t say that Calvinists directly teach that God is the author of sin. Rather, I said that Calvinists often make the mistake of believing in double predestination, that God predestines some to Hell. We’ll call double predestination (A).

    Then I said that if double predestination “were true, it would mean that God is the Author of confusion and the Creator of evil. But 1 Corinthians 14:33 that ‘God is not the author of confusion.’” We’ll call this belief (B).

    So I wasn’t saying that Calvinists teach (B), but that they teach (A), and that (A) logically leads to (B). I know that double-predestination Calvinists deny this, but the denials I’ve seen so far are unconvincing.

    If you can explain to me how double predestination doesn’t logical require God being the Author of sin, you’re welcome to.

    In Christ,


  7. Hi Joe. Thanks for the response. The different views between Catholics and Calvinists, I think, start at their view of man. I don’t think one can truly grasp or understand election/reprobation holding to Aquinas’s view of man (that men are at least somewhat good at their core). I think we could get into a discussion on this and it might not ever end, because one point would probably lead to many others on which we disagree.

    If you are truly looking for an explanation to how/why Calvinists believe the way they do I would suggest Johnathan Edwards’s The Freedom Of The Will.

  8. Hollie,

    I agree that this is one part of a much larger puzzle, and I actually agree that a Calvinist view of total depravity makes double predestination make a lot of sense. My point was much narrower: that (1) if double predestination is true, then God is the Author of Sin, and (2) that God is not the Author of Sin.

    Certainly, if (1) and (2) are true, that’ll have huge impacts for how believable Calvin’s theories are, but I don’t think that the best way of determining whether (1) and (2) are true is by jumping into a tangential discussion on total depravity. Is there a way of articulating your view which doesn’t require me reading Edwards*? In Christ,


    *I’ve actually been meaning to read that book for about two years, but it’s still pretty low on a daunting list. It was suggested to me by Greg Gilbert, a Reformed Baptist out here in D.C., back in ’09.

  9. Joe,
    This may well be another of your providential accidents….

    I have been discussing theology with another vendor who didn’t at first identify as a Calvinist, but after discussion it was clear he believed in at least several of the 5 points.

    He and I have been discussing free will and predestination for a couple days, and I have not been making much headway. Mostly because my arguments have been, of the but Calvin’s wrong variety. Well a little more seasoned than that but not much…

    Now I can just hook him up with a link for these two posts and say, start here then we can discuss…

  10. God does not desire that we sin. But God has consigned all things to sin. There is nothing that we can do to bring about our salvation (since we are sinners).

    But God in His great love and mercy has decided to save some.

    Why do some come to faith and others do not? That is a mystery. St. Paul reminds us that God is the potter forming the clay the way He wills and it’s not our call.

    If we are lost, it’s our fault. It’s we are saved, it’s God’s doing.

    Calvinists try and pin our lostness on God, but us Lutheran types don’t buy it, because the Scriptures speak of a God who died for and who forgives the whole world.

    It’s just (as I mentioned before) some hear and come to faith…and some do not.

    My 2 cents.


  11. Old Adam,

    St. Paul, in Romans 11:32, says that “God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all.”

    In contrast, you say that God consigned all to sin, that He may have mercy on some.

    The view presented by St. Paul is that God offers the free gift of salvation to all: some will take it (and be saved, by the grace of God), while others will reject it (damning themselves).

    The view you’ve presented, however, seems to suggest that there are some who are never offered the gift of salvation. If that’s true, then I don’t see how you avoid your own description of Calvinists.

    Wouldn’t the damned go to Hell simply because they never had the capacity (either internally, or externally, through God’s outstretched hand of salvation) to be saved? Or am I misunderstanding what you’re saying?

    God bless,


  12. Joe,

    We believe that God creates faith through the hearing of His Word and the administering of His sacraments.

    And that this faith creating work is not dependent on any one man’s fingerprints.

    I know we won’t agree on this.

    But you asked, so I thought I would just give the Lutheran viewpoint once again.

    Thanks, Joe.

  13. Joe,

    I’m sure my defense of Calvinism will be nothing you haven’t heard. That was why I suggested Edwards’ book. He does an excellent job of really breaking it down and explaining it.

    I think the focus that opponents of double-predestination take is misplaced. They seem to get stuck on the God is creating people for Hell mindset. God created men with a free-will, it’s very clear that Adam choose sin. And after the fall men are born slaves to sin (Romans 3). So, the fact is because we are all born in Adam, we are all going to Hell. We all deserve Hell. The amazing thing is God is giving mercy to some. That is AMAZING. And the fact that people want to focus on God being unfair because some people go to Hell just seems odd. Nobody gets injustice, all humans either get mercy or justice. I guess I just don’t understand how logically you get to the point that God is the author of sin from your view on this. It’s almost like some people are going to Hell for sinning –> God created people –> therefore God created sin. It’s a huge jump to make. Everyone is on their way to Hell. We all choose Hell in Adam. In Adam all die.

    It’s also worth noting that Calvinist don’t deny the free agency of man, which isn’t the same as free-will. We have free agency, which means we can voluntarily choose according to our desires, but our desires are in bondage to corruption of nature so this is not freedom in the Biblical sense. Freedom of the will, to choose good, Holy things occurs when the Holy Spirit acts to free us. That’s why total depravity is a key element of understanding this concept. No one would ever choose God apart from God intervening.

    Of course you also have the differences between God’s decreetive will vs. perceptive will.

    There’s so many different facets to this argument that it could go on forever (okay, actually it has been going on for hundreds of years at least 😉 ) And I seriously doubt I’ve brought anything new to you here. Like I said, if you are interested in digging deeper into the Reformed view, check out that book. I could discuss it with you, but I’m not a theologian many wonderful saints that God has gifted the church have said it much, much better than I could hope to.

    God bless!

  14. Hollie,

    I agree with a lot of what you said. For example,
    (1) that Adam had a freer will than modern man,
    (2) that through Adam’s sin, death entered the world, with the taint of original sin impacting us all,
    (3) that each one of us warrants Hell through our lust for sin, and
    (4) that those who are saved are simply snatched out of the fire by the mercy of God.

    But the heart of dispute relates to double predestination and free will.

    In your comment, you suggested that the argument sounded like “some people are going to Hell for sinning –> God created people –> therefore God created sin.” But Catholics also believe that some people go to Hell for sinning, and that God created people. What’s different is that we think that sin is the fault of the damned. We don’t have to sin, but we do. In doing so, we declare our lust for sin greater than our love for God. So with free will, this really isn’t a hard question, and the idea that “God created sin” doesn’t follow. God created people, people freely chose sin.

    If free will doesn’t exist, then sin isn’t our fault, any more than a baby is morally responsible for his mother dying in childbirth. More to the point, if free will is omitted, then God’s creation of sinful man proximately leads to the result, sin, and He’s the Author. If you pull a trigger, and a bullet comes out of a gun, you fired the gun. But if you simply trust people to own guns, you do so knowing that some will misuse them, but you’re not responsible for that misuse. They free chose to misuse the freedom they were given. In other words, the Second Amendment doesn’t kill people; people kill people (with guns).

    Imagine a particularly sinner, Faustus, who lives a depraved life and goes to Hell. In the Catholic view, God offered His hand of salvation, and Faustus rejected it. God respects Faustus’ decision to choose sin over God, and consigns him to the place of sin, rather than the Presence of God. That’s damnation.

    But in the Calvinist view, God created Faustus in such a way that Faustus would be a depraved sinner, and could not help being a depraved sinner. God then refused any assistance, and then damned him eternally. In other words, the only reason Faustus sinned was because God created him to. Faustus didn’t choose to sin. In this view, God essentially made Faustus do it. Faustus becomes a mere trigger, acted upon. God pulls the trigger, and damns him for firing a bullet.

    But since sin is that which God despises, the idea that God is the Author of sin is unthinkable. And it would be cruelty, not Justice, for God to damn someone who literally could not stop what happened.

    This then raises two related problems. One, why create Faustus at all, if he couldn’t be saved? And two, why wouldn’t God simply save everyone. His Justice is satisfied in the Death of Christ on the Cross.

    P.S. If someone is driving safely in bad weather, and their spins out of control and kills someone, I imagine that you don’t consider that the same as murder. So I think that intuitively you recognize the need for sin to be an act or omission of the will.

  15. Hi Joe,

    And that’s why I said the crux of our disagreement hinges on the differences in the view of man. You seem to believe that man can choose not to sin outside of grace; that it is a choice one can make all on their own. (“We don’t have to sin, but we do.”) I’m also not sure you fully understand the difference between free-will vs. free agency.

    But just to be sure, God did not create sinful man. Adam broke the Covenant of works, thus damning all his offspring to Hell. In each Covenant through out the Bible we see a Covenant head and the Covenant is with him and his offspring. The Covenant of Grace was introduced because The Covenant of Works was broken. God created another way. The Covenant of Grace belongs to Christ and His seed.

    The Bible gives us no answer for where evil came from (we know Satan was an angel, but we don’t know why he became evil. You can read a lot into this. We know Satan is not eternal like God, that he was an angel, and thus God must have created him.). I trust that God has very good reasons for withholding this information from us. The secret things belong to God.

    All your examples of human thoughts on sinful acts are nice and all, but it is vastly different when we sin against a Holy God. We cannot comprehend how wretched our smallest sins are because we cannot truly perceive the holiness of God. It does no one any good to try and put God into a human court room and hold Him accountable to us!

    We are starting at different presumptions. I believe mine to be Biblical, you believe yours to be. I know neither of us will change the other’s mind/heart here. I do hope you give Edwards’ book a go eventually. (I’m signing off because I start home-schooling my kiddos soon and I just won’t have the time to continue a discussion of this breadth. I wish I did! I love to discuss this stuff as I think iron sharpens iron. I wish my Catholic friends lived closer so I could talk to them about such things over coffee or dinner! This conversation could lead off onto our differing views on salvation, free-will, the natural state of man, the atonement, etc – because all these things tie together. And holding one view like “free-will” has theological implications for how one interprets the Bible)

    🙂 Thanks for the conversation! Have a great week.

    In Christ,

  16. Hollie,

    You’ve been great to talk to on this, and hopefully, I’ll get to reading Edwards one of these days.

    I did want to clarify one thing, just so I didn’t leave you with the wrong impression: we don’t think that man can do good on his own. We believe that apart from God, man can do no good, and can desire no good (cf. the Council of Orange).

    But the difference is that outside of Hell, we believe that God continues to rain His graces upon the just and the unjust alike. So even those who are ultimately damned had the grace to accept saving grace, but rejected it.

    Anyways, I’ll let you get back to homeschooling. My dad was a school teacher, and I was briefly homeschooled, so I have a lot of respect for what you’re doing, and know how much of a challenge it can be. May God abundantly bless you,


  17. Hollie –

    How does a Calvinist get to make these arguments from scripture when they have no authority outside of themselves to determine what is scripture? I understand the dispute is over the interpretation of scripture, but I keep going back to where is the authority for a Calvinist/Protestant to determine what is scripture to interpret outside of themselves? If they claim it was through he Church, which was Roman through and through, when did the Church fail and how do we know it failed? Through ones personal interpretation of scripture that was given to us by the same Church now claimed to have failed? If so, then the Church failed and Christ’s teachings were false and none of these theological disputes matter.

    I can’t imagine a bigger failure of a church founded by Christ than failing to teach properly.

  18. Joe,

    Your presentation about the Calvinist position on this blog-post of yours fails for many reasons.

    Number one, you apparently didn’t consider that there no single consensus of interpretation concerning the negative aspect of predestination (reprobation) among Calvinists. For example, some Calvinists hold that God is active only in executing His plans for the Salvation of the elect (i.e. by regenerating them, granting them faith, repentance, etc.) but is passive with regards to the consequence of not choosing the rest for Salvation (i.e. that God simple pass over the rest, leaving them in their sinful and deprived state). This is far from saying that God causes them to Sin in order to damn them. Rather, the reprobate are sinners by their own fault, and are justly condemned on account of their sins.

    Number two, not all Calvinists hold to Suplarapsarianism, or the idea that in the logical ordering of God’s decrees, the “decree to elect and reprobate” precedes the “decree to consign all to Sin by means of the Fall,” which is like saying that God creates the reprobate to fall in order that they will be damned for their Sins. Again, not all Calvinists hold to this view.

    Most Calvinists (or at least most Calvinists that I know) hold that God’s decree to elect some unto Salvation and pass over the rest presupposes His decree to create man, and to permit him and all mankind to fall. In this view, God had nothing to do with man’s plight except that He permitted his fall.

    Being now fallen, man deserves all the blame for his sins. All mankind are equally unworthy to receive life, that even if God didn’t choose any to be saved and reprobated all, He remains holy and just.

    Joe, you didn’t consider these in your presentation, but what you did is just confine Calvinism within the box of your own self-made caricature of what Calvinists hold.

    1. Jeph,

      not to be snooty but BOOM, i think you made the point for us. Calvinists cant even agree on what Calvinists believe about salvation….

      What does that say for their entire theological position? Can there be more than one truth? How does the uneducated layman know where to turn? How do I know I should listen to *your* view of calvinism rather than the one down the street? Why shouldn’t I come up with my own system that seems more sensible and consistent to me? Are there any beliefs which are non fungible to be a Christian? says who?

      One of the greatest beauties of the Catholic Church is that no matter what Her members say, Her faith does not change. You can take it or leave it but you can’t redefine it and call it truth. All because Christ gave Her the authority via the apostles and specifically Peter.

      In Christ

  19. scredsoxfan2,

    Diversity of opinions on minor details concerning predestination among Calvinists is not the point in my comment. But since you brought it up with an obvious intention of aggrandizing your Church, I’ve got news for you.

    Different opinions regarding predestination also exists within Rome. Thomism vs. Molinism; Molinism vs. Augustinism; Augustinim vs. Thomism. The debate is still ongoing, and Rome remains undecided on questions whether election is unconditional or not, or whether man’s will is free in the libertarian or compatibilist sense.

    Of course Rome has set some restrictive boundaries for Catholics who would want to think over these things, which includes prohibition to talk about reprobation or rejecting any form of positive double predestination, affirming that Christ died for all, etc. But my point is that your church’s magisterium cannot guarantee complete unity in every aspect, so it’s a clearly double-standard to criticize us of our diversities, and yet overlook the existence of diversity within your own camp.

    You said:
    [One of the greatest beauties of the Catholic Church is that no matter what Her members say, Her faith does not change.]

    As if Scripture change when Calvinists take different positions on non-essential details of Salvation. Your comment makes me laugh, really.

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